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Fighting at the gates of Tripoli

Valerie Stocker / jrbFebruary 5, 2014

Rebels and supporters of the old regime of Moammar Gadhafi are engaged in some fierce fighting near the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The brewing conflict shows how inseparable tribal feuds are from politics.

Tribal holds in Libya (photo. DW/V. Stöcker)
Image: DW/V. Stöcker

Three corpses are lying in a hospital morgue in Zahra in southwest Libya. The doctor insists on removing the covering over them. The one corpse is of a 65-year-old man who was in his garden when he was killed by a stray large caliber bullet. His relatives are waiting outside the room.

Not everyone believes the victims should be on display. "Protect the honor of the martyrs," says one person in the group, giving rise to a heated debate. In the end, most agree the atrocities should be made public.

"The indiscriminate attacks spare no one - they're shooting rockets into residential areas!" shouts Faraj Mustafa, who was wounded in the leg in his own home. "Gadhafi loyalists are everywhere. Why are we being attacked? It's a tribal war here."

State of emergency

Many Libyans call the Warshefana, named after an area only a few kilometers removed from Tripoli, "Tahaleb" or "algae," in reference to the previous green national flag. Numerous tribesmen held high positions during Gadhafi's rule and fought for the former regime. They are now in a state of emergency. Armed militias, who fought Gadhafi in 2011, have surrounded the area with heavy artillery. On the other side, tribal militias are entrenched in residential areas and have buried the roads in sand.

Faraj Mustafa (photo: DW/V.Stöcker)
Faraj Mustafa was injured in the legImage: DW/V. Stöcker

Everything began in mid-January with green flags and a Gadhafi portrait. Tribal members are believed to have displayed these items to celebrate a military offensive by reactionary forces in southern Libya. On the following day, brigades from the capital pulled in and began to arrest gang members from the area, which is considered criminal.

The residents viewed the move as a politically motivated retaliation measure. Fighting flared up soon after. Interference by other militias from neighboring communities that are at odds with Warshefana reinforced the impression of a campaign against the tribe.

A frontline runs through the city of Maamura, if one can speak of such a front given the uncoordinated street fighting. A ceasefire is currently in force; an eerie silence prevails except for a few shots that can be heard from a distance. Many families have meanwhile fled the city.

Linked destiny

The mayor, his wife and child were killed on the first day of the clashes after a rocket blew through the wall of their home. The stroller is full of blood. The mayor's brother is visibly distraught, standing quietly in the middle of the devastated building.

But older tribal members are already speaking up in front of the house. "As long as the Warshefana region has not been pacified, there will be no stability in Libya!" shouts Sheikh Nureddin. "Our destiny is linked to that of the country."

Sheikh Nureddin (photo: DW/V.Stöcker)
Our destiny is linked to that of the country, says Sheikh NureddinImage: DW/V. Stöcker

The Warshefana believe the arrests were merely a pretext and the government is primarily seeking to marginalize them. Many of their homes have been looted and set on fire during the fighting.

It is "pure revenge," says Faraj Sayeh, standing in the ruins of his family's villa. The politician vehemently dismisses claims of being a member of the Gadhafi-loyal tribe. "That's a conspiracy. We have proof that the media department printed the Gadhafi portrait and put it up to denounce us."

Deliberate moves

Like many from his tribe, Sayeh believes the media have deliberately created enemy images and parts of the government have used these to distract from their own power plays.

Conflicts over the revolutionary period are breaking out again across Libya. Many Libyans are disappointed with the current government and secretly yearn a return to the Gadhafi era. But, at the same time, many have little understanding for the Warshefana despite the innocent victims among them, claiming they are all Azlam - supporters of the old regime. "At least 80 of them recently paid homage to Gadhafi in public," said one militias head in Tripoli.

The Warshefana are hated in the entire region, especially in neighboring Sawiya, which was besieged by troops during the revolution.

Faraj Sayeh (photo: DW/V. Stöcker)
Faraj Sayeh takes a look at his destroyed homeImage: DW/V. Stöcker

A cool wind is also blowing across Libya's southwest. "Warshefana is a criminal swamp," says a revolutionary fighter from Dschadu. "Hundreds of travellers have been robbed and attacked at false checkpoints. Many inhabitants of the Nafussa Mountain region are scared of going to Tripoli because the roads run through the Warshefana area."

Difficult peace treaty

Tribal leaders are under pressure to deliver criminals and Gadhafi loyalists to the police or face more civilians coming under fire. They have agreed in principle to try and negotiate a peace treaty with representatives from the capital. But it will be difficult to implement such a truce as neither party has its armed forces completely under control.

Those troops that fight the Warshefana believe they have the right to do so because they are maintaining order on behalf of the state. What is missing, however, is a neutral army, for as long as the state tolerates vigilante justice, such conflicts will continue.